The Replay: Goaltender interference in Lightning-Canadiens Game 3

Whenever there's a goaltender interference call, controversy ensues. This is one of the most poorly understood parts of the rulebook and inconsistency from one official to another has made the confusion worse. While I'm not going to argue that NHL officials are always correct in their application of the rule, they do get it right by the rulebook most of the time.

The problem is that the rule as written is complicated and, well, pretty awful, which screws things up for everyone. There are a lot of misunderstandings out there (especially on Twitter) about what is and is not goaltender interference, and these sometimes get repeated through the media. When even former players now doing analysis don't really understand this rule, you know it's complicated, possibly unnecessarily so.

And there was another controversial disallowed goal in last night's game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens. Still, while referee Francis Charron wasn't completely right about this call, he wasn't completely wrong, either.

It's vitally important to remember that the man had one single look at this play, in real time, with no alternate angles, whereas we've had dozens of replays from at least three different angles, and at multiple speeds. And none of us, no matter where we were last night, were standing in his place. That is an angle on this play that none of us had.

First, the rule: Rule 69 - Interference on the Goalkeeper

This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player's position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper's ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. . . .

The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

This is only part of the opening to this very complex rule, however. There are multiple scenarios with multiple layers involved. Intentional versus incidental. Inside versus outside the crease. Whether defending players are involved or not. Whether the goaltender initiates contact and under what conditions. It's not simple and straightforward and it never will be.

The key to goaltender interference is that no attacking player can initiate contact with the goaltender. In fact, it is the responsibility of every attacking player to attempt to avoid initiating contact with the goaltender at all times wherever the goalie is but especially inside the crease. Any time an attacking player goes into the blue paint, he is responsible for moving out of the goaltender's way. This is true whether he goes in under his own power or is pushed in by a defender. He has to at least try to avoid getting in the goalie's way. (This doesn't hold for rebounds or loose pucks in the crease, where attacking players do not have to give way while trying to reach the puck.)

NHL goalies maintain the right to move around in the crease and get into position to make saves. They maintain this right wherever they are on the ice. If they leave the crease and then need to get back in, an attacking player can't get in their way. If they're making a save outside the crease, they can't be touched.

But especially inside the crease, goalies have the right to move around and establish position. It is the goalie's crease. Attacking players must give way.

Attackers have the right to enter the crease as long as they don't impede the goalie. They have the right to set up screens as long as they don't impede the goalie's ability to move from one position to another, including moving forward towards the top of the crease or moving to try to see around them. Attackers who get pushed into the goalie must take evasive action. Failure to do so can result in either a disallowed goal or a penalty. You can't simply claim you were pushed. You have to make a good faith effort to avoid or minimize the contact.

But none of this matters in the absence of a shot on goal. Impeding the goaltender in the absence of a shot on goal is irrelevant unless it rises to the level of a penalty. There are only two things a referee can call here: a penalty for deliberate contact or a disallowed goal. If there's no goal to disallow and the contact is deemed incidental, there'll be no call of any kind.

Thus the two questions for a referee in this situation are whether the goalie's ability to establish a position was impeded by contact with an attacking player and whether the contact was more than incidental. The former is the basis for disallowing a goal; the latter is the basis for calling a penalty. Contact does not have to be either deliberate or within the attacking player's control for a goal to be disallowed.

So with all of this in mind, what happened at the Bell Centre last night?

first look at the ridiculous no-goal call on Twitpic

This no-goal is so stupid I want to rip my face off on Twitpic

The key question here is whether and to what extent Carey Price was impeded in establishing his position. The area of concern is not the moment where Alex Killorn was knocked into the net but when he was trying to get out. Whether he was knocked into the net by another player isn't relevant, because it is Killorn's subsequent action that the referee is concerned with.

And again, we're not looking at whether Killorn could have gotten out of the way. That's part of the criteria for whether it's a penalty or not. We're concerned with whether he did get out of the way, which is the criteria for determining if the goal will be allowed.

Killorn and Price move in the same direction, towards the play to the left of the goal. Killorn's attempt to get out of the goal and back into play clearly impedes Price's ability to set up on that angle, but there is no shot at that point. Nonetheless this initial failure does affect his ability to follow the play towards the center of the ice. He never gets in good position and the puck makes it in.

The question now is how much of Price's inability to get set was due to the contact with Killorn and how much of it was his own error. And that has to do with how much one action affected the next action. Is this a single sequence of events or is it really three separate plays? (the initial push into the net, the attempt to get out of the net, and the move across the ice towards the final shot.)

With hindsight and multiple replays, we're able to break this thing down into screen shots. None of us can go back to the point where we haven't seen the replays of it. Francis Charron didn't have that luxury. I think that in that moment, it's not unreasonable to believe that he saw this as at most two separate sequences: (1) the initial shove into the net and (2) the attempt to get out affecting the set up on the shot.

So given how the rule is supposed to work and how fast the play unfolded in real time, it's a call that definitely has a basis in the rules. Whether any other official would make the same call is beside the point. The call was not completely wrong given the constraints under which Charron was working.

Of course, it wasn't completely right, either. Price had nearly a full second to set up after the contact with Killorn ended, but did we know that at the moment it happened? We can stop time and show that he had made it to his skates and moved away from the contact. If goaltender interference was reviewable, this is likely to have been a good goal for the Lightning. If Charron hadn't signaled no goal immediately, it might have been reviewable.

In the end, it comes down to how referees determine whether contact impeded a goaltender from making a save. Charron clearly deemed that the contact with Killorn impeded Price. Was he making this determination because of Price's inability to get set or did he see something else? In the absence of any transparency regarding this call, we will never really know. But given the constraints of the moment and the usual interpretation of the rule, I've got to give him the benefit of the doubt here and say this was a reasonable error to make.

Still an error visible on replay, but not an egregious abuse of power.